The Monk That Went Forth

Twenty five hundred years later, it is still traditional for monks to wander and teach but there is probably no other monk who has wandered as far as Bhante Yatirawana Wimala, one of the most unusual Theravadha monks. Bhante Wimala has been traveling full time for twelve years covering more than 100,000 miles by air and over 15,000 miles by car in the last year alone. He teaches, lectures and organizes peace and healing programs in many nations and on nearly every continent. In addition to his travel and teaching schedule, he publishes a quarterly newsletter, writes poetry and philosophical articles, distributes a series of meditation cassettes, manages international pilgrimages to sacred Buddhist sites and somehow finds time to visit hospitals, help friends with their lives and keep on with his religious and scholastic studies. And, instead of being exhausted by the pace of his life, Bhante Wimala is known for his quick smile and easy going manner. He never seems to be hurried, angry or depressed. In fact, his close students say he is one of the most peaceful people they have met and that somehow just meeting Bhante Wimala is such a peaceful experience that they recall it to restore their own inner peace at difficult moments of their lives. I first met Bhante Wimala five years ago when we shared a large house in Boston with nearly a dozen other people. This was a cooperative community of mostly computer professionals and Phd students of MIT. Bhante Wimala had been a long term guest of the house for some time. Despite the enormous cultural differences between a Sri Lankan monk and these assorted American technophiles, Bhante Wimala made us feel relaxed and peaceful for his presence. His advice was usually helpful regardless of the situation, and he pitched in on the household chores better than some of the people who weren’t guests. Most of us knew little about Buddhism before we met Bhante Wimala, but we spent many nights talking about religion and philosophy over cups of steaming tea, At least two of us are currently practicing Buddhism today, and I personally learned much about meditation from this charming philosopher.

Despite his many travels, sometimes for months at a time, he was much a part of out household as any of us. Eventually, I moved out of the house to begin my own full-time travels but Bhante Wimala still seems a part of me. We somehow manage to meet each other in various places across North America several times a year to work together on writing projects or to catch up on our friendship. Last summer we met in the Colorado Rockies, the spring before we met in Washington, DC. This time, we met in San Francisco to speak about the strange and wandering life of this unusual monk.

AR: Tell me about your travels and what you hope to accomplish with your wanderings.

BW: Unlike most monks who wander in their homelands or live ascetically in monasteries, I spend my life traveling over the world to teach and to heal and to bring peace to the people of our planet. I have been traveling now for twelve years and have forged friendships across the globe. I like to think that there is a friend of mine who is just waking from a good sleep at every hour of my day.

Many monks, who mostly limit themselves to their local Buddhist temples and congregations, consider my international work in the thoroughfares and living rooms of non-Buddhist lands to be untraditional at best, and even extravagant or heretical. still, the combined merits of exposing people to new and helpful ideas while learning their traditions and beliefs has provided an enormous benefit to everyone involved. My travels are spiritual as well as physical and from the years and miles, I have seen the world inside me and the world outside me grow more peaceful and whole.

It is a peculiar life I have chose, by the judgment of my Buddhist brothers and the judgment of the non-Buddhists I have come to know. I am always a stranger in a strange land, even when I visit my most trusted friends or return to my homeland. Yet, for all the discomforts and unfamiliarities, this is a life I deem necessary: for each time I cross a nation’s borders to share my thoughts with another group of strangers or to work on a project to help those who unnecessarily suffer, I forge a trail of peace and understanding and leave a path of open minds and tolerance behind me for others to follow. It is said that we live in and impossible world and so I have chosen to do the impossible to live in it.

As I think about this life that I live, and the string of circumstances that have led me to travel the world as a holy man among secularists, I can’t help but smile when I remember that the name for my homeland , Sri Lanka, means serendipity. Perhaps it all makes sense when you think of serendipity as your starting point.

AR: Tell me about some of this serendipity. Are their any stories that illustrate the magic of a world traveling monk?

BW: There are many stories. I recently returned from leading a meditation retreat for the staff at the Findhorn spiritual community in Scotland. The night after the retreat I felt energized and full, but also eager to be alone. Findhorn is a lovely place with beautiful, well-tended gardens but I wanted to walk to the ocean, to experience freer side of Nature. But the beach was further than I thought and it soon grew dark. I was half way to the beach and had started to turn back when I met a young person who offered to walk with me to the beach. Of course, we started to talk and soon I heard about the painful friction present within the family. As we spoke our hearts, tears spilled out over the feeling of lost familiar love. We had a truly intense exchange of thoughts and feelings by the crashing sea, much was shared and we walked home in high spirits carrying new hope.

It is an interesting thing that during our time together, my heart was so clear, healing and soothing, offering comfort. Only afterwards did I realize what an amazing story we were. Two strangers, born on opposite sides of a planet, as different as two people can be, meet on a walk to the beach and wind up speaking their most profound thoughts to each other in a healing, caring, very intense conversation. Then, like a thunderstorm, the moment is over, and the two strangers part again, perhaps forever, having been dynamically changed by the interaction.

There is a special poetry to life that comes from allowing one’s self to participate completely in whatever adventure comes down the road. And I wonder how often brilliant magic moments are lost to fear or ignorance. I hope that I always have the wisdom to let my fear go and complete my walks in the dark to beaches unknown looking for the good friend I haven’t met.

AR: Are all of your interactions so positive?

BW: Well, not every story is so splendid, but they are mostly positive. Recently while waiting for a flight in Texas, I noticed an older man staring at me through squinted eyes. With my dark skin, shaved head and orange robes, I must have seemed a bit conspicuous in an airport filled with business suits. I smiled and nodded at him and, after a few minutes he came over to me and said in a very loud voice, “You look really strange.” I smiled at him again, not quite knowing what to say, Finally, I said, “Yes, I know” – “Well, ” he snorted, somehow satisfied with himself, “Why don’t you change?”

I smiled yet again and told him that I look like I do because I am a Buddhist monk, a representative of one of the world’s major religious, and that many people accept my appearance as that of a clergyman. He seemed pleased with this explanation and we spoke for a few minutes, shook hands and parted. It didn’t occur to me for some time afterwards that I never asked him why he wore such a big cowboy hat indoors or why he had such a funny little string tie or why he needed to wear steel-toed boots made from the skin of rattlesnakes or why he spoke so loud through a mouthful of tobacco. I don’t know that he would have given me as adequate and explanation for his appearance as I did for mine, But I smile yet again and accept him.

I have noticed similar feelings when I speak at elementary schools. The children are at first frightened of my unfamiliar appearance. I can sense their nervousness as the teacher turns the classroom over to me. I can feel their small fears as they first hear my accent. But always it is the same-after half an hour the children are lined up to talk with me and touch me. They want to be friends.

Very often the teachers ask me before the class what it is I want to teach. And always I tell them that I want children to know that there are people like me- many people-who have different color hair, different color skin, different clothing, different beliefs, and a different religious philosophy. I want them to see beyond my outward appearance and to see the teacher and the friend I want to be for them.

As I travel around the worlds teaching and counseling, it rarely occurs to me that one of my greatest services to the planet and the people I meet is not only in my words but in the fact that I am there to say them. By simply traveling I am helping people to become less attached to appearance and more aware of their own prejudices. I also understand more how important it is that we smile at one another.

AR: These interactions sound so magical, but I imagine that constantly breaching cultural prejudice might become tiresome after a while.

BW: It’s true that there is a lot of cultural prejudice in the world, but overcoming these prejudices is a very satisfying process for me. Throughout history, there have been rare individuals who have managed to reach very strong and heartfelt cultural barriers through their clarity of vision and the sincerity of their hearts. These rare, enlightened people are my inspiration as I travel. I always imagine that through their placid wisdom, they could see beyond cultural boundaries, above the ignorance and fear that create dogmas of aggression and isolation, and focus on the core issues of any situation, with careful words, a gentle smile and a heartfelt gesture, such persons are above judgment, beyond language, and perpetually welcome. When such a person makes the kind of cultural error that would be unforgivable for natives or other visitors-as I sometimes do- most people just laugh softly to themselves, blaming the rigidity of their own expectation, and consider the traveler with even greater warmth. These are universal people and their home is with everyone.

When I meet people, I am not meeting their religious, racial or ethnic labels-often I won’t even know what they are or what they mean. Instead, I am meeting a spiritual being with consciousness, heart, intention, and important information to share concerning universal concepts of living. When I travel I see no Buddhist, Christians, Jews, or Jains or spiritualists; no Germans, Saudis, English, Thais or Israelis. I see no colors, genders or ages. I see eager, caring, conscious people who are both struggling and playing with the same issues as I am. There can be no place, in such a world view, for breaches of etiquette or misplaced words. There are only smiles, nods, questions and laughter.

Of course, it is not without effort that I continue to travel among so many different people, and not every interaction is as enlightened as I would hope. In Germany, I met a fine family of Christians who pitied me since I must be lonely without God because I do not believe in Jesus Christ. In America, I know people who feel that since I am not married and have no wife or children I must be devoid of live. I even meet Buddhists who are not used to such a traveling monk and criticize my ways. These people are sometimes quite aggressive in the presentation of their views. And although I can occasionally feel uncomfortable, I am also interested in these views–I am far from having learned all that other people can teach me. I also return their energy with respectful attention. I listen to them , ask questions, offer exchange and quietly go about my own way. It is surprising to me how a second visit to these people often shows that they remember my respectful attention to them and not strength of their disapproval of me.

AR: What is the stated goal of your travel? Is it a missionary sort of work, to create new Buddhists in the world?

BW: Not at all. Most of the time I travel on invitations. My invitations come from universities, collages, churches, or from certain individuals either to work on a project to help needy or to give lectures, presentations or meditation retreats. In fact, I often begin my presentations by reminding people that we all come from different backgrounds with many wonderful, varied belief systems. Each of us is equipped with the truths of our people and the truths of own making. I have only come to share my truths and learn from others. Now, while it is certain that many of my truths derive from Buddhism and the Sri Lankan culture, it does not necessarily mean the Sri Lankan Buddhist culture is the one and only true and right way.

There are many different paths that have value, truth and beauty. It is my stated goal to share the values, truth and beauty of my path and learn something of value, truth and beauty from other peoples. Beyond certain practices, like yoga, meditation and creative acts, there is little that I can offer in the way of absolute truth. Eventually we all need to meet on the peak of universal truth where we all will be in prefect harmony. Until then, I encourage tolerance for all peoples and a spiritual path that does not concern itself so much with assessing the truth of other peoples, but one which stresses daily spiritual practice that will lead one to discover their own best truths which is universal.

AR: This must create quite a shock in the Western countries whose religious claim that the only truth comes from one source and that personal investigation beyond this source is a crime.

BW: there is something to this, some Western are shocked at the possibility that they can achieve spiritual greatness without death. but then again, a good half of my lectures in the West are sponsored by the same churches that once executed people who believed in truths that were different than their holy books. These same institutions are the people who most often ask me to come and visit. And I find my work with them to be especially rewarding.

We live in times of great change. The only thing we can be sure of at this time is that we can’t be sure of anything. This means great danger, as in the threat of terribly destructive wars and environmentally damaging business practices. but this also means great opportunities, such as can be found by a traveling holy man. I see that there is an emerging sense of spiritual desire all over the world. The planet seems filled with people who are looking at their most basic beliefs through new eyes. Part of this new spiritual interest is due to the intellectual exchange caused by travelers like myself, but most of this urgency arises because so much of the underpinnings for every society have changed quite drastically in the last dozen decades. Few of the ancient understandings will ever again be seen in the same perspective and people are desperate to come to higher understandings. Many people in western nations have turned to, for them, the non-traditional path of Buddhism, for example, although Buddhism practiced by most of these Westerners would surprise the average Sri Lankan.

There is something very wholesome about the emergence of these new spiritual hybrids. so much value comes from the act of searching for better ways. Didn’t Gothama find enlightenment after trying many different paths? Weren’t his first disciples heretics in the eyes of older, more established traditions? Today I know people who combine elements of ancient European nature religions along with later American Indian traditions and swirl this together with quotations from the Tao Te Ching, martial arts exercises and Buddhist chanting. Perhaps it is more than our privilege to have so many traditions at our disposal, perhaps it is our responsibility to learn the many possible paths to enlightenment. Although it could be confusing at time, hopefully, eventually we will free ourselves from all beliefs and religious concepts and open our hearts to know our own inner truth. This is a grave difference between Buddhism and Western religions: we are required to emulate the Gothama’s quest for truth and enlightenment, not sit idly by while others achieve enlightenment for us.

Finally there is no way that I can create more Buddhists in the world–although I certainly teach Buddhism and I know many people who have become attracted to Buddhism because of knowing me. first of all, being a Buddhist is a personal choice for an individual, not a club one can join by paying the entry fee. Secondly, the Buddhism I know is a mix of scripture and culture which evolved on a small island near India. How can someone from Sweden or Russia or Israel learn to be a Singhalese Bhante like me? This is not an easy task. And the people from other lands who call themselves Buddhist are very, very different from what my teachers in Sri Lanka might expect. sometimes this difference is small and may seem amusing to me, but I have been shocked at times by what some Westerners consider Buddhism to be, Even so, this must be the way since we are literally a half a world apart. The best we can do is learn from each other and find beauty and meaning in the harmony of our similarities and differences.

AR: How is it that you manage to travel full time. I think you are a mendicant and have no possessions.

BW: Actually, one time I was a real mendicant. Things has changed a great deal since. Buddhist tradition allows me a few possessions and teaches that I should accept what comes to me. In my work, for example, I own some books and I recently was given a computer which should help me to type stories for the newsletter–a task that burdens others just now. You see, I too live my life as a hybrid of my times, and I value the experience of learning new ways. Adam, how many times have you encouraged me to learn new computer programs telling me “When ever you’re in the middle of a tsunami, it pays to know how to surf.”

My travel expenses are paid by the various institutions and individuals who invite me to come and lead workshops or meditations or to bless their homes or businesses. Mostly I speak at churches and for small or large groups of religious adventurers. I also work quite a bit with small children in schools. I have lectured at universities throughout the world and often speak at meetings of clergy or business leaders. A fair bit of time is spent at holistic health centers like Findhorn and the Omega Institute, where I counsel the staff and lead workshops in meditation and yoga. I usually stay in the homes of friends when I travel, although I have been made welcome at various monasteries across the world. Usually my needs are small and I find very often that my friends derive great pleasure in hosting me and introducing me to still more friends.

As full as my schedule gets, though, it is always possible to find the time I need for meditation and reflection, to write, to practice yoga, to read, to study, and again to meditate. I plan carefully to avoid the stresses that hurt other travelers because I know that my greatest value to my friends and students lies in my own peace, health and soundness of mind.

AR: How often do you get a chance to return to Sri Lanka and what do you find when you go there?

BW: Actually, I am just returning to Sri Lanka next month to remember my father on the anniversary of his death and to lead a pilgrimage of my students from America and Europe to various holy places in Sri Lanka and Thailand, Later in Thailand I will participate in a leadership conference with more of my students from Sweden and Russia.

There is always a blend of pleasure and pain for me when I return to Sri Lanka and Kandy, in particular. There is so much that is familiar to me–the sights, the smells, the sounds, the faces of my friends and family, and a way of life that is at once ancient and modern, practical and spiritual. I am so very lucky to have been born and raised on this island. And then, there is such pain for me to see the changes that have come over time. I have lost both my parents in the last few years and my village of Yatirawana continues to change so quickly. and when I am only beginning to understated the changes at home, I must again recognize the many changes in me. Sri Lanka and I feel like fond strangers some times, always searching to understand each other.

Eventually, I will hear an old chant or catch sight of an old teacher and suddenly, I will remember why I have come home. I come home to reconnect with the land and the ideals of my childhood, to renew my respect for tradition, to refound my love for our life here and to bind myself again to my roots and beginnings. For a man who is never sure where he will go next, it is so important to understand where I started from.

Adam Rostoker is a well known writer, musician and lecturer on issues ranging from computer science and technology to philosophy and economics. He travels full time in a specially equipped motor home and is involved in the international peace movement.

* This interview was done in Feb/ 1996